Being a caregiver for your aging parents can be demanding, stressful, and frustrating. Fortunately, it can also be filled with humor—if you’re able to see it.
“Finding humor was essential to maintaining my relationship with my parents in their 80s and 90s, as well as to maintaining my own equilibrium,” says Pam Carey, author of Elderly Parents With All Their Marbles: A Survival Guide for the Kids.
Here, Carey shares insights from her own experiences as a caregiver for her parents, highlighting the ways humor helped her cope.
Embracing the Ridiculous
When Carey’s parents were in their early 80s, she helped them move close to her so she could care for them. Though her parents were still in relatively good health at the time—and therefore able to live in their own house—her mother’s glaucoma and her father’s colorblindness led to some interesting wardrobe and hygiene malfunctions.
“Dad might appear in a Hawaiian shirt emblazoned with palm trees along with plaid pants, while Mom had spots from food dribbles down the front of her,” Carey recalls.
In her attempts to rectify the situation, Carey would sneak their clothing to her car so she could wash it at home. Sometimes, though, her parents caught her in the act and made her return the clothes to their house.
“We’d all have a good laugh as I pulled the items out of my tennis bag, where I’d hidden them,” she shares. “Eventually, I deposited them in their own washing machine when I ran their loads of laundry.”
Carey discovered that even silly situations like these served to relieve tension and provide a respite from the demanding nature of caregiving.
“To find humor, the situation didn’t have to be monstrous—just something that made me chuckle,” she says. “If my parents could chuckle at the situation with me, it created a closer bond between us.”
You Have to Laugh or Cry… or Both
When your parents are approaching the end of life, however, it’s much more difficult to find a way to laugh.
“Underlying the caregiving process is this truth: The elderly are eventually going to pass away,” says Carey. “The story will always end the same way, but with a different effect on each caregiver. The trick is to find a way to accept the loss.”
For Carey, humor was a big part of acceptance.
“My dad liked to crack jokes, usually plays on words, even in his 90s,” she says. “I’d laugh, even if they were corny or didn’t make sense to me. His jokes diverted our attention from a serious health situation and eased tension.”
But, as Carey discovered, sometimes you can’t stop the tears.
During the last few months of her life, Carey’s mother began to hallucinate. Pointing at a chair in her rehab room one time, she said, “Pam, do you remember Howard?” Carey played along, leaning over the empty chair to shake hands with the imaginary friend.
“I didn’t know who was nuttier—Mom or me,” says Carey.
After reading up on her mother’s medications, Carey demanded a meeting with the doctor to discontinue some of the drugs.
“As humorous as the scene with my mother had been, I cried myself to sleep,” she admits.
Rules for the Rest of Us
In the end, Carey learned that a sense of humor helped her cope with the curveballs of life with aging parents. Throughout her time as a caregiver, she created dozens of humorous “rules” to facilitate the caregiving process and ease transitions to increased care.
Her rules include such tongue-in-cheek truisms as these:
- A Caregiver Want Ad Should Read: Super Sleuth with Reptilian Skin and Stand-up Comedy Routines.
- If a Loved One Hallucinates, Play Along. Then Find Out What’s Causing the Trips to La-La Land.
- Expect the Unexpected and Keep Smiling.
“Caregiving is stressful, tiring, frustrating, emotional, and yet very rewarding,” affirms Carey. “If you can laugh at yourself and share the story with your parents—especially if it was a faux pas—a sense of intimacy will be created.”
CHIME IN: How have you been able to find the humor in difficult caregiving situations?